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Security and democracy

After the Mumbai terror attacks a loud and angry public called for anything from action to revenge. On the other hand, the government chose to react slowly and diplomatically. What was the correct democratic option? Swarna Rajagopalan explore the labyrinthine relationship between ‘security’ and ‘democracy’

Mumbai terror attacks protest

There is a profound, complex and symbiotic relationship between security and democracy. Most typically, civil rights activists see security concerns as inimical to democracy, and security sector decisionmakers rue the constraints placed by democratic processes on their functioning. The terror attacks in Mumbai and their aftermath suggest it may be time for a more thoughtful reading. 

Live reportage by 24-hour news channels brought the full horror of the attacks and the efforts of security officers into millions of homes around the world. Reporters stood just outside the line of fire, trying to get updates where they could, functioning as professionals but reacting like human beings to this completely new experience. News was leaked and interviews were given. Reporters probed survivors and stopped short of giving terrorists air-time. Those who were ‘handling’ the terrorists also watched television updates of security operations in real-time and communicated these to their operatives. Emotions ran high everywhere, onscreen and off, onsite and off. 

These emotions have found outlets in the large attendance at police funerals; candlelight vigils; protest rallies and countless online initiatives from petitions to groups on social networks to acrimonious discussions on listserves. Television channels have vied with each other to pay tribute, with news channels inviting entertainers and entertainment channels incorporating courage, martyrdom and patriotism as themes in their programming. 

“Something must be done; I must do something.” While this feeling has been expressed as outrage and solidarity by citizens across India, on television in particular, it has taken the form of an aggressive push for accountability and a steady pressure for firm, assertive and unforgiving action against the perpetrators and their backers, especially Pakistan. At first glance, with so many giving up their customary apathy, there seemed to be a democratic revolution brewing in middle class India. But at second glance, many complex issues are visible. 

Should war and peace decisions be made emotionally? Where do we draw the line between expecting the government to be responsive to popular pressure and using its discretion?  Similarly, how far should citizens trust the government to make good decisions based on intelligence when intelligence failures allowed the attack to happen? 

There are four values that democracy imposes on all policy arenas, including security. These are transparency, accountability, responsiveness and rule of law. Traditional security thinking on the other hand depends on discretion (if not secrecy), room to manoeuvre, authority to act and impunity. In this article, we explore the various facets of the labyrinthine relationship between ‘security’ and ‘democracy,’ rubrics that we will treat as monolithic and axiomatic for now. 

Security and democracy: Free-fall in tandem 

The various conflicts subsumed under the shorthand ‘Kashmir’ clearly illustrate how State-formation related issues are  key to security and democracy and how the two can interface to their mutual detriment.  

When there is a dispute regarding the physical limits of the State, the State’s security is challenged. However, the process of staking and consolidating territorial claims comes with a cost to democracy. Stationing armies, cordoning off areas and limiting public access are starting points, often followed by press embargoes and therefore, limited public access to information. The outbreak of hostilities from time to time underscores to each side in the dispute the importance of militarising the disputed area. As anxiety about territorial security mounts, control over political processes begins to seem desirable. Merely stationing and equipping army units does not feel like an adequate measure. 

In Kashmir, this meant interference in elections and state governments. Democracy was undermined, at least partly under the guise of security considerations. The consequence was that the Indian State’s legitimacy was eroded in the Valley. The insurgency followed, with the additional complications of cross-border training and infiltration and linkages to global jihadi trends. The Kashmiri dream of self-determination was once more articulated in the course of the insurgency. A third party was added to the contentious question of what territories (and peoples) make up India and Pakistan. 

‘Kashmir’ illustrates how security and democracy decline together, each facilitating the other in free-fall. Border disputes lead to militarisation; militarisation leads to restrictions of movement and information flow; restrictions are reinforced by political manoeuvres; these erode the legitimacy of the State; challenges to a State increasingly perceived as illegitimate and the State’s defence are expressed through escalating levels of violence. This expands the referent of security from the State to its citizenry, caught in the crossfire, constraints placed on their freedoms. 

The task of an analyst or news anchor is substantially easier than that of a government decisionmaker. The location of the decisionmaker within a labyrinth of favours and compromises and a legacy of precedents leaves her looking at options with a zero-sum lens. Given a contentious physical definition, should she move to resolve that issue in her favour or should she prioritise the ideational self-definition of her democratic State over its physical consolidation? 

Security and democracy: The governance connection 

If Kashmir illustrates security and democracy in mutually reinforced free-fall, is there a circumstance in which security and democracy reinforce each other in the other direction? Backsliding from previous articles in this series, so far, this article has taken a traditional view of security. What if we were to return to looking at security as referring to more than States and physical safety? Would this democracy-security relationship look less like a zero-sum game? Would these two values reinforce each other? 

In the many conflicts in northeastern India, a common thread relates to governance failure. In Assam, for instance, the failure to take cognizance of the changes in the demographic as a result of migration and the carving out of smaller states, led to an anti-migrant agitation. In Tripura, furthermore, an overall breakdown of law and order plus a piecemeal attitude to reconciling the interests of various groups within the state has created an untenable situation which is neither secure nor conducive to public welfare. 

In Sri Lanka, responding to majoritarian demands led to alienation of the minority. Pacts signed between the government and the Tamils were repeatedly repudiated. Repeated breach of trust culminated in the rise of militant groups. Violence escalated and governance failures snowballed. Sri Lanka’s early lead in development indicators and the efforts of a vibrant civil society have preserved the process and practice of democracy in circumstances least conducive to it. 

In the Maldives, under the long Gayoom presidency, civil rights remained notional and while elections were held, the peculiar circumstances of Maldives’ geography and society meant they served as endorsements rather than elections. Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture in what the opposition termed the ‘Dhoonidhoo Hilton’, the atoll-state’s most notorious island prison, were commonplace. Lack of democracy and the absence of security for individuals went hand-in-hand. 

Equity and fairness, law and order and the rule of law are important elements of good governance. They are also critical to both security and democracy. Afghanistan illustrates how the absence of security endangers democracy even as the Maldives illustrated how the abandonment of democracy creates insecurity. Is good governance then the common ground between security and democracy? Quite possibly. 

Democratic voices, security concerns 

After the Mumbai attacks, when people on the street, commentators and television news channels argued with increasing vehemence for swift action, commandos moved cautiously and the government seemed almost reluctant to act. The commandos’ caution was explained in terms of the need to save lives and not indulge in indiscriminate firing. Going beyond accusations of incompetence, what slowed the Government of India’s response? 

International relations theorists in the last decade or so have delighted in their discovery of a near-theory in a field that abounds in contradictions and intangibles. The ‘Democratic Peace’ theory holds that democratic States do not go to war with each other. One explanation for this is that the process of decisionmaking in democracies is slow. The movement of a plan of action from one arm of government to the other is determined by due process. This also allows civil society to weigh in on alternatives, and governments have necessarily to respond to the questions and demands of the public. 

In the context of the Mumbai attacks, it seems as though two symbols of democratic decisionmaking were antagonistically juxtaposed. On the one hand, a loud and angry public called for anything from action to revenge. On the other hand, the government seemed to choose this very moment to react slowly and diplomatically, reflecting the cumbersome nature of decisionmaking in a democracy. What was the correct democratic option? What was the democratic option that furthered the State and the citizenry’s security? 

The answer, in the case of security issues, we are led to believe, often lies with experts and practitioners. The role of secrecy in strategic thinking and security action comes to colour all security matters. Because secrecy is associated with security, only a few people are privy to information relating to security, and because information or intelligence is a critical component of decisionmaking, over time, the right to speak about and contribute to decisions in the area of security comes to be restricted to a small network of experts. In fact, scholars note that to label something ‘security’ is both to raise its priority level in the political arena as well as to throw a cordon of secrecy around it. 

The idea that decisions should be informed and thought-through is universally acceptable. The catch is that experts do not necessarily have perfect information, and that communication failures also abound in government circles. In this age of online news and 24-hour channels, many experts also gather their information from the same resources as lay citizens. So who should get to speak about security? 

Democracy’s answer is: everyone. Especially because everyone feels the impact of security decisions or inaction, there should be no bar on who can speak their mind and expect a hearing. In an Aristotelian turn, democracy’s dilemma is whether to yield to the security oligarchs or the emotions of the crowd. Neither choice is perfect. While security is indeed too important to be left to experts, the citizenry at large do not take a sustained interest in the issues and when they demand action, it is in an emotional moment, unfettered by perspective or responsibility for consequences. Had we listened to the loudest voices of late- November, what would the ravages of war have been in the subcontinent as 2009 dawned? 

In India, for decades, foreign policy was sacred and the establishment worked around a consensus. There was not much by way of debate. Think-tanks were and are largely populated by former government and military officials. There is continuity in their thinking that reinforces this consensus culture. The media is increasingly willing to challenge security thinking, but it exists in a symbiotic relationship with decisionmakers and is limited by this. Social movements have an episodic interest in the traditional security sector and their positions do not reflect an evolving alternative strategic vision. 

What then does democracy mean in the context of security decisionmaking? The workings of democracy slow down security decisionmaking. The fear of electoral reprisal dissuades leaders from making dramatic changes and taking tough decisions; it also makes them vulnerable to popular pressure. Citizen journalism is yet another factor now. The increase in the number of actors, media and fora results in a corresponding increase in the number of gatekeepers—editors, censors, regulators—who make the call of what is ‘security’ and therefore, out of bounds, and what is grist to the democratic mill. The tightrope between the secrecy of security considerations and giving a free media the right to report results usually in excesses on either side. The right to information has been recognised but its limits for the security sector are not fully tested as yet. 

Citizenship, civil society and security 

Sometimes an active civil society can mediate between the anxieties of a State and the aspirations of its citizens. Civil society however, is an amorphous category that comprises both benevolent actors such as social movements, religious organisations, neighbourhood associations and civic initiatives, as well as malevolent actors such as the political fronts of extremist organisations and charitable fronts of organised crime. A broad schedule of rights, laws and platforms provides the frame for the interaction between State and civil society in general. In order to curtail the activities of the less-than-civil elements within civil society, sometimes this frame needs to be modified. 

For instance, Dawood Ibrahim’s gang orchestrated the 1993 blasts in Mumbai, using the freedom of movement and association they were guaranteed by India’s democratic Constitution. However, their actions took several lives, placed countless others in limbo as the journey to justice dragged on and highlighted urban India’s vulnerabilities to others who have exploited them many times over. 

In the context of this security-democracy discussion, how could this have been prevented? Arguably, the track record of Mumbai’s underworld would justify restrictions on their movement, association and access. However, democracy requires that without evidence, such restrictions be placed across the board or not at all. You cannot pick someone out of the crowd and make a different set of rules for them without a convincing case for the same, heard by a neutral arbiter. Similarly, in the context of riots of the sort the preceded the blasts, are people to be free to propagate, teach and train hatred and violence? 

Each set of blasts and each communal riot opens up this question about balancing security and democracy. The challenge is not rhetorical, however, but that of teasing out the threshold between two extremes of bans and censorship on the one hand, and literally, a licence to kill on the other. 

To conclude, this discussion actually brings us right back to our refrains of ‘what is security’ and ‘whose security’. What is clear is that when security is defined very narrowly to refer to those in power, there is an automatic degradation of democratic values. The security and survival of a regime matters more than the rights and freedoms of those who are outside that regime. When security refers to the State itself, its territory, people, values and institutions, it is more inclusive and therefore more amenable to rules about transparency, responsiveness and accountability. When security goes beyond survival and beyond the State to refer to the safety and welfare of individuals, it becomes something bigger than a policy area: it is now an attribute of good governance. To the extent they choose to participate, the right to define, the right to interpret and the right to participate in decisionmaking debates extends to all who are being thus secured. The once-antagonistic values of security and democracy are now mutually inalienable. 

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.) 

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009